Y2Ag: Is someone selling a crisis in land use that isn’t really there?

January 5, 2023 |

It ought to be the Era of Good Feelings in the world of SAF — technology is available, more feedstocks have appeared, carbon programs are stable and market-based, companies are organized. The Biden Administration set a 3 Billion Gallons by 2030 SAF target and the DOE has launched a SAF Grand Challenge

Yet, one hears a lot of “BOO!” when you whisper “SAF”. Lately, SAF’s been getting the raspberry from environmentalists, conservatives, liberals, policy advisors, even some bioeconomy believers who ask, not unreasonably, “where are the gallons?”

Why all the sourpuss expressions? I can think of four reasons.

1. Mistaking Ingredients for Solutions.

100% SAF is a solution, 50% SAF is an ingredient, and the First Law of Energy Transformation is “consumers pay premiums for solutions, but never for ingredients.” So, if you want to get a premium for your product in the early days when volumes are small and economies of scale hard to come by, don’t make ingredients. 

Think of premiums this way. People who gladly pay $150 per person for steak dinner and all the trimmings at Mortons are often the same people carping about $11/pound bone-in ribeye at the Winn-Dixie, or the price of milk. People who paid $100,000 for a Land Rover Defender got bent out of shape when unleaded super topped $6 a gallon.  The biofuels industry has to take a page out of the Tesla narrative and get out of the ingredients business and into the solutions business. 

If all the fuel you can make is barely enough fuel for the Fixed-Base Operation in Loving County, Texas population 57) , go there and and make Texas the Envy of the Known World. Putting two drops into every wing in the American Airlines fleet just doesn’t have the same impact.

2. The Fallacy of “It must solve everything or it solves nothing”.

Heinz Ketchup does not solve climate change, not a bit of it. It’s a good product with an enviable market share, and that’s it. Similarly, you do not have to provide the all-in-one, built-in, shockproof National Energy Solution in order to sell some fuel, either.  That does not mean that you can cut emissions 30 percent and offer a 10 percent blend and a net climate impact of 3 percent, and expect anyone to care except your feedstock suppliers and the Senators who love them. 

Biofuels, on the other hand, do not have to replace all of petroleum to have value, to add value. Energy is a team sport, when people scoff at your technology because it cannot replace all of petroleum, ask them how many goals Lionel Messi has ever scored all by his onesey. Solutions are made of portfolios, in energy as in stocks. Think of the comparable stability of the power sector. Wind, solar, biomass, nuclear, hydro, RNG, gas, petroleum, geothermal — the Road of Many Feedstocks leads to the Palace of Stable Prices.

3. The Fallacy of “I Walk Alone”.

In recent years we’ve seen the marginalization of grand coalitions like the American Council on Renewable Energy and the rise of the Many Associations Who Walk Alone. EVs walk alone, wind walks alone, solar walks alone, hydro walks alone, and so forth. The biofuels industry has splintered into so many associations and acronyms that you can hardly fit them all on a Scrabble Board. If the opponents of sustainable fuels and materials had been completely in charge of the script, they wouldn’t have changed a word of this epic of Divide and Conquer. Sometimes the biofuels industry is so busy throwing each other under the bus they don’t have time to focus on the greater enemy without. Reminds me of China in the 1930s.

4. The Fallacy of “You Will Never Have Enough Sustainable Feedstock

The only thing worse than a greenwash is a hogwash, and the old critique “not enough feedstock” is pure pig water.  There is enough feedstock to make the SAF required, unless you run the kind of analysis that concludes there is not enough oxygen to breathe by measuring the world’s current supply of oxygen bottles. There are many available feedstocks to tap to make SAF, above and beyond the current go-to feedstocks of FOG and soybean oil.

The Bottom Line: Y2Ag

I remember it well, December 31st, 1999. Many of you were out partying like it was 1999. I was trapped in a stuffy room testing mobile devices like crazy, hoping that the world’s airline flight schedule distribution system did not keel over and die. You experienced The Millennium. I experienced Y2K.

We’ll never know if the world was saved by the billions of dollars spent on hardware, software and consulting in the years of run-up to Y2K. We avoided the problem, so we’ll never know for sure how extensive and devastating it would really have been. It was sold like the asteroid story should have been sold to the dinosaurs — and introduced me to something called “selling a problem” which has showed up as a meme in the critique of climate science. 

There’s a problem being sold around the world, and it is “Using agriculture to solve any problem beyond food supply and maybe some building materials and towel paper is a bad idea.” Lots of people seem to be traveling on the Y2Ag train these days. Here’s what they appear to believe:

  1. Farmers are serfs.
  2. We the People Shalt Make What They, the NGOs, Approve.
  3. All cars shall be EVs.
  4. No one will Ever form a Cartel for Rare Earth Metals, like they did with Petroleum and Diamonds, Can’t Happen.
  5. All energy shall be electrons, no matter what.
  6. All Plastics are Evil.
  7. Deforestation is not caused by Zoning Laws, it is caused by Palm Trees.
  8. No Developing Country Shall be Allowed to Do as the Industrialized Countries Did.
  9. Tribes Shall Be Revered Until They Seek Economic Opportunity Excepting Casinos.
  10. All Forests Shall Be Restored and Preserved Unless They Are the Ancient European Forests.
  11. Land Shall be Restored to Nature Excepting a Circle Measuring 300 Kilometers from Brussels.
  12. Shaming individuals in the Name of Societal Norms and Goals is Wrong unless it involved Flight Shaming.
  13. Diversity and Individualism Shall Be Revered Unless it Involves Soil.
  14. If You Do Not Do as I Say, a Plague Shall Descend Upon You. Y2Ag is Coming, Mark Our Words, And Please Send Money.

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